Thursday, January 26, 2006

Oh What Fools We Mortals Be

The opening story in The Night in Question is "Mortals," the story of a young newspaperman (the narrator) who loses his job after running an unverified, and premature, obituary of a man named Mr. Givens. Someone phoned in the obit and the narrator typed it up without question--in violation of the newspaper's policies but in accordance with standard practice.

It is Mr. Givens' wife who raises the ruckus that results in the narrator's termination; Mr. Givens seems all too willing to forgive and forget. Although the narrator doesn't catch on until fairly late in the story, the reader may intuit early on that Mr. Givens himself has called in his obituary, in an attempt to see how others might judge his life. He works for the IRS; you might say he has filed an early return.

The story is airily amusing, more anecdotal than many of Wolff's works; it's easy to imagine Wolff as the young protagonist and the story as autobiographical. But Wolff employs one noteworthy device, at the very end, that reminds me of many of his other, more serious pieces. After the narrator has wrung a confession from Mr. Givens with threats of violence, he is returning to the restaurant where the two of them ate lunch.
Just ahead of me a mime was following a young swell in a three-piece suit, catching to the life his leading-man's assurance, the supercilious tilt of his chin. A girl laughed raucously. The swell looked back and the mime froze. He was still holding his pose as I came by. I slipped him a quarter, hoping he'd let me pass.
What does this coda have to do with anything? Why is this extra bit tagged on? Obviously, to make a point: we all play the fool; the best we can hope for is a little kindness from those who catch us in the act. The device is the use of multiple stories within one story to achieve extra context or perhaps contrast. This tiny scene is a separate story, but one that sheds light neatly on the narrator's interpretation of the main thread; far better than a paragraph of heavy handed reflection.

Wolff loves the story within the story (usually seen in the form of frames). In one story which I intend to blog on later ("Our Story Begins"), Wolff uses a frame within a frame (a story in a story in a story).